The Deafening Silence in the Central Mediterranean

Last known position of the boat. Photo: Alarm Phone

As Alarm Phone, we regularly get contacted by families who search for their missing loved ones after they went on a boat to cross the sea. Families, who  have waited in vain for a sign of life and arrival: No phone call or message is coming in, telling them that the trip went well and that the person arrived safely. 

There is no passenger list that could help in finding out about their fate. People are forced to travel secretely, as crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe is highly criminalized and illegalized. 

State actors monitor the central Mediterranean closely. Several air assets fly off the coasts of Libya, Tunisia and other areas to detect “illegal” migration movements. They fly extensive operations to prevent migration but when its needed to save lives, search operations often come much too late. They may have answers about the fate of missing boats, but they stay silent. There are no official national or transnational actors who care and who inform families about their disappeared loved ones. 

As Alarm Phone, we try to support families in their effort to trace their familiy members or friends. We do so through (media) research or by reaching out to our networks of friends in countries of departure, transit, and arrival. Families often approach not only the Alarm Phone but seek out multiple avenues in their search for answers. 

Very often, answers cannot be found as the traces of their loved ones are lost somewhere in the middle of the sea. This means that families are stuck in a state of uncertainty, not knowing whether their loved ones have died or not. In this state, they often cannot begin to grieve. 

We condemn the left-to-die policies that are enforced on a daily basis by authorities in the central Mediterranean that lead to so much suffering, at sea and beyond. We condemn the horrific silence by authorities who deliberately refuse to answer our questions regarding the outcome of distress situations at sea and who also refuse to provide answers to families in their search to find the truth.

We acknowledge the endless pain faced by relatives, friends and community members of a person who disappears without a trace. 

Sadly and disturbingly, more often than not, we can only offer to keep searching for official information and protest the enforced disappearances together.

Left without Answers
On the 11th of January 2024, Alarm Phone was informed about yet another case of disappearance, where families were left without any answers. 

On that day, at 19:45h CET, Alarm Phone received a call from a relative who informed us about a boat in distress. The boat was at the position N34°36 E12°20, deep in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone. We sent a first alert to the Italian MRCC and the Maltese RCC at 20:20h via email, informing them about the boat with 39 people on board who had departed from Libya earlier on the 11th of January.

At 20:50h, we received another position from a second relative of someone on board. Once again, we shared the last known position with the Italian and Maltese authorities via email at 21:13h. At 21:25h Alarm Phone could establish a first direct contact to the people on the boat but due to a very bad mobile connection, they could not pass important information on to us. 

Alarm Phone stayed in touch with relatives while trying to reach the people on the boat without success until the 12th of January at 00:08h when we managed to reach the people on the boat again. They gave us the following GPS position: N34 52 5465, E012 22 1202. We passed this position to the Italian and Maltese authorities via email, urging them to launch a rescue operation. At 00:44h, we also sent an email to the the merchant vessels Oslocarrier3 and the Gaz Concord as both were in the vicinity of the last known position of the boat.

At 01:35h, Alarm Phone established direct contact with the people on board for a third time. They gave us their updated GPS position: N34 57 153, E012 21 500. We emailed also this position to the Italian and Maltese authorities.

At 04:00h, a relative called us to report that the people on board were panicking and scared, fearing the high waves and strong wind. We sent the 6th email at 04:20h to the Italian and Maltese authorities to alert them to the deteriorating situation and asking them again to urgently launch a rescue operation. 

At 04:45h, the aircraft EAGLE1 operated by FRONTEX arrived on scene and monitored the situation until 07:00h

At 05:30h, one of the relatives called us again, reporting that the people on board could see a bright light above them, identified as coming from a helicopter. The relative informed Alarm Phone about the boat’s newest position: N35 07, E12 20.

At 05:38h, Alarm Phone sent the 7th email to the Italian and Maltese authorities, informing them about the updated position. In the following hours, contact to the people on the boat could not be restablished. 

On the 13th of January, several aerial assets flew search patterns near and around Lampedusa (RIMB, RIMC, I2321). 

Since the 12th of January at 05:30h, also the relatives have lost all contact with their loved ones. We tried to reach the people on the boat regularly until the 16th of January – without success. 

The people have disappeared. This and the countless other forced disappearances are the consequence of a racist system based on exploitation and exclusion of Black and Brown people. 

To this day, the 39 people have not contacted their relatives. To this day, there is no trace of them. To this day, the families are desperately waiting for an official statement, an answer from authorities about the fate of their loved ones. To this day, and for more than 30 years of a global racist visa regime, the strenghtening of border control and the increasing violence by the EU against people on the move, no state or authority has ever been held accountable for the crimes they have been committing every day.

We ask: Given the increase of aerial surveillance in the central Mediterranean, the wide daily search patterns and the non-stop satellite monitoring of the sea, how can people simply disappear?

We ask: Why were no immediate rescue efforts initiated when the boat in distress was only 15 nautical miles off Lampedusa and when several Coast Guard, Guardia di Finanza and Frontex patrol vessels were stationed in Lampedusa?

We need answers from relevant state authorities. We need accountability of these actors. 

We condemn the continuous enforced disappearence of people who were courageously trying to cross the Mediterranean, fleeing violence and searching for more dignified conditions.

As always, we stand in solidarity with the families and friends of the disappeared who will be searching for answers from the authorities – we fear, in vain.